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The Link Between Genius and Insanity

The Link Between Genius and Insanity

Many of us are familiar with Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream”, but few know the details of the artist’s life and the inspiration for this evocative piece of art.

Munch, a Norwegian artist who died over 70 years ago, lived a life that was fraught with anxiety and hallucinations. His masterpiece—which is today one of the most recognized paintings in the world—was conceived one evening when the artist was standing on the edges of Oslofjord. Rather than the painting coming to him in an enlightening and victorious flash of inspiration, Munch wrote that, “The sun began to set – suddenly the sky turned blood red; I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.”

Most art historians today believe this painting represents the angst of modern man, which Munch suffered from to a great degree all throughout his life, but saw this as an indispensable motivator of his art. In his diary, he recorded feeling that: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

The link between genius and madness which Munch experienced is certainly not unique to the artist; through history, many great creative minds have experienced a similar relationship between talent and torment.

Vincent van Gogh is particularly well known for his madness, owing to the fact that he cut off his ear after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin, and later ended his own life.

In one of his missives to his brother Theo, penned in 1888, he wrote: “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

Van Gogh’s illness, well-known as it is, has played a strong role in furthering the widespread perception that madness and genius are intrinsically entwined, and that artists are especially prone to a range of mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which drive the intense emotions and otherworldly visions expressed in many great works of art.

But correlation, or course, does not guarantee causation, so psychologists stepped in to research the matter in greater depth. Is there indeed a link between madness and genius? It turns out this popular assumption may in fact have some merit.